Late for Trains: A Series of Foods and Films

My day, Saturday, November 18th 2006, was ruled by trains.

In the morning when my alarm went off, I disabled it and decided to get as much sleep as I needed. I eventually got up at 10:35am. I'd hoped to take the 10:57am train to get to city before noon. That way, I could stop by the Saturday farmer's market for food before heading to see the 1:30pm movie at the series of screenings of Italian cinema the SF Film Society was showing. (Parking anywhere in those parts of the city really suck. That's why I decided to go by train.)

According to the clock at my local Caltrain station, I made it there at 10:55am. Crossing over to the north-bound side of the platform, I bought a ticket, then noticed the ticket and the clock by the tracks themselves said 11:01am. Had I missed the train? Even if those clocks were right and I missed it, I should've heard it as I walked the two blocks from my apartment building to the train. As I thought, I noticed that signs said that northbound trains were boarding on the southbound side of the platform today, so I crossed back to the other side.

I stood around for ten minutes debating what to do. Had I missed the train? The next train was in an hour. Should I go back to my apartment and get stuff done and take that train? Should I ditch my train plan and drive into the city? Should I keep my train plan and skip the ferry building? I called the transit info number for service announcements. They didn't say anything about train delays. As I thought, my stomach grumbled.

I decided to head to the nearby donut shop to grab breakfast to eat at my apartment. Today, however, there wasn't anything at the shop my heart desired.

As I left the donut shop, I heard the clattering as railroad crossing signs descended. Heading back to the train station, I discovered it was the apparently delayed northbound train and so I boarded. My slowness in deciding what to do kept me barely within hearing distance of the tracks, allowing me to catch my desired train.

While on the train, I read some of the guide to the ferry building farmer's market book a good friend bought me.

Once in the city, since it was such a beautiful day (as usual during these farmer's market trips), I hiked from the Caltrain station to the ferry building.

Since I didn't want to shlep food around with me the rest of the day, I didn't actually buy anything to bring home. But I did buy lunch:
* A very good BBQ beef sandwich from the Golden Gate Meat Company. I'm always skeptical about buying food kept in a hot tray on display under glass. I needn't be. The meat was a nice balance of flavor of the meat itself and the BBQ sauce. It's rare that one doesn't overwhelm the other. And the sandwich roll was soft, sweet-ish, and did an excellent job soaking up the juices.
* A hijiki and soybean salad from Delica rf-1. I've had it before and it's not particularly notable. I just wanted a small salad and there aren't many places to get a salad that isn't a meal in itself.

I also bought some stuff for later. I'll mention those as the narrative progresses.

I finished eating at 1:10pm and knew it was time to head off to the movie theater. Located in an outdoor shopping mall spread over four blocks, it was amazingly hard to find. The maps by the mall only showed what was in the mall on that block. And even when I got to the right block, I had trouble finding the theater because the maps made it difficult to find a listing for anything not on the ground floor. It's a wonder the place survives.

I got to the theater within two minutes of it starting. The movie, "... And If Tomorrow," was a pretty good comedy, based off a true story of an odd event in Italy.

By the time the short, the movie, and the Q&A was over, it was 3:50pm. The movie was longer than I expected: it was no longer possible to continue with my plan of catching the 4:00pm train to Redwood City to watch the next movie I wanted to see at 5:30pm.

Still, I hurried to the bus station in hope that it'd magically get me to the Caltrain station in time. There really wasn't any chance; I arrived at 4:10pm and so had to wait until the 5:00pm train. While waiting, I read and also ate a pear from the farmer's market. It was a variety of pear I never heard of before and don't remember the name of but, really, if I didn't know it was a different variety, I'd never have guessed.

The third movie I wanted to see that day was at 7:30pm, also in Redwood City. I debated briefly getting off the Caltrain at home, doing stuff for an hour, then grabbing the next one, likely arriving at Redwood City around 6:45pm. Realizing it was Saturday night and that there was some chance the movie, "Mi Mejor Enemigo / My Best Enemy," one of most awarded movies of the year from Chile/Argentina, might be sold out, I decided to head straight to Redwood City.

The ride to Redwood City was neat. I tried to read but ended up faking it, instead eavesdropping the whole trip on a nearby conversation about one man's quest tracking down countless relatives and experiencing much family drama while trying to figure out why his grandfather left his grandmother. An enthralling story, I could imagine both reading it in a literary short story and seeing it on one of those overdramatized talk shows.

Once in Redwood City, after buying my movie ticket I wandered around downtown. I noshed on a smoked salmon stick I picked up at the farmer's market: basically, the salmon equivalent of beef jerky, high salt content and all. Downtown Redwood City seems like a decent, up and coming place: nice wide sidewalks, a reasonable variety of restaurants, and many coming soon signs. It'll likely be much like Castro Street (although with the benefit of movie theaters) within the next year or two.

After some indecision, I selected Amelia's Salvadoran/Mexican restaurant for a small dinner. I had a huge but boring chicken taco and a decent papusa, though this one tasted more baked than fried. (One nice benefit meant it had less grease than usual.)

Incidentally, the movie was decent and quirky. A little too light on seriousness given the subject (the humanity of men at war). After the movie, I checked the clock, realized I had mere minutes to make it back to the train station lest I be stuck in Redwood City for another hour and a half, and bolted. Yet another train misadventure.

Once home, I ate the last of my farmer's market items: a fuyu persimmon. Although I'm usually fine with persimmons, I didn't like this one; I must've chosen badly. In my defense, I was probably distracted by what the booth helper was telling me: that pale persimmons weren't yet ripe and that one could leave them on the counter for three months (yes, months) and wait for them to ripen.

That is all.

Dia de Los Muertos Festival 2006

On Sunday, November 5 2006, still slightly disappointed by the scale of the last two festivals I attended, I decided to go the Dia de Los Muertos Festival, what I was pretty sure would be a full size street fair, in the international district (a.k.a., the Bayfair district) of Oakland. I knew it would be big because the web site said they were sold out of booth space.

I also wanted to go because I've heard much about the international district in Oakland and the quality of its authentic food and wanted to see the area for myself.

It was huge! Ten blocks of booths. At least five stages, most loud enough that some music could be heard constantly. A huge crowd of, according to the Chronicle, tens of thousands of people. I can believe it: it was hard to walk given the constant press of people. The only festival I've been to that might've had a similarly large crowd was the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival, and that's spread over a larger area. The crowd was so huge and dense it took me two hours to press my way ten blocks from one end of the festival to another. I think the North Berkeley Spice of Life Festival might've sold out of booths as well, but it was only six blocks long and, although crowded, lacked the sheer mass of people.

As I explored, I took some photos, including a few of the many altars, and some movies of various dancing, drumming, and music. The newspaper link above also has a few more photos which, I'm proud to say, are not significantly better than some I took.

I snacked while wandering amid the ruckus and browsing the booths, most of which were pretty boring though a few sold paintings of death, neat shirts, or sculptures of death. I started with a cheese and bean and cheese papusa: both solid examples of the cuisine (including the expected amount of grease). Next came one of the most brilliant snack booths I've ever seen: a booth selling chopped fruit of many types including watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, mango, and more. I had some watermelon. I spotted a number of these booths around the fair, all doing good business. Why don't more people on the street sell nice fresh fruit? I later finished my snacking with a taco al pastor topped with onion, cilantro, and both red and green salsa. It was great. (Mixing salsa usually fails. Not this time.)

Anyway, it was a cute excursion.

Interesting Articles: October 17th-November 13th 2006

* Graveyard Shift: Prostate cancer linked to rotating work schedule (Science News). The title says it all: don't play with your body schedule too much.

Food and Health:
* Seafood not your health foe, studies say (San Jose Mercury News). The health benefits of omega-3s outweigh the risks from mercury and PCBs. Fish should be a regular part of your diet.

Food and Psychology:
* Seduced By Snacks? No, Not You (New York Times). Another article on how psychological and social factors affect how much someone eats.

* Battle of the Hermaphrodites: Sexes clash even when sharing the same body (Science News). Includes many examples of strange, unusual, weird, or just plain disturbing relationships between the sexes in various species.

Politics and Marketing:
* Free candy in every pot (American Public Media's Marketplace). A hilarious parody of campaign ads for state proposition. Listen to it! (Reading it isn't as good.)

Business Organization/Management:
* How should organizations handle failures? (Stanford Engineering Newsroom). There are countless good quality articles and books written about success and failure, innovation, and incentives. I'm posting this article simply because it has handy quotes I may later want to reference.

* Start your engines (Science News). A good example of people solving the wrong problem. Engineers have spent years improving catalytic converters. Meanwhile, "up to 95 percent of a vehicle's hydrocarbon emissions occur during the warm-up period." A change to the start-up fuel mixture "decreased the car's hydrocarbon emissions by 81 percent." The abstract of the source article, On-board generation of a highly volatile starting fuel to reduce automobile cold-start emissions (Environmental Science & Technology), is available.

* The Ultimate Influence (New York Times). A pretty poor article about ultimate frisbee and academics. Posted only because it cites some facts that I hadn't previously seen and may want to reference.

Festival of India 2006

After the Croatian festival, I didn't think there could be a smaller gathering that advertised itself as a festival. I was wrong.

The Festival of India, which I attended on Saturday October 28th 2006, was located in a house near Golden Gate Park. The bottom two floors were devoted to the community center -I forget the name-; the top floor was rented out.

Like the Croatian festival, this was expensive ($10). And also like the Croatian festival, one movie made the trip neat. And I got to talk to someone interesting for a while. (However, the movie and the festival as a whole weren't as fun as their counterparts at the Croatian festival.)

I arrived at noon, intending to use the festival as lunch. This didn't work. The only food they provided was typically boring snacks: carrots and dip, bread, cream cheese, peanut butter, etc. The artichoke cream dip was the only thing that made eating anything worthwhile.

I spent fifteen minutes exploring the festival: the small book scale, a few saris hanging from the walls, and a few other trinkets for sale. Other than that, I mostly sat, read, eavesdropped on the astrologer/fortune teller, and waited for the movies to begin. With the awesomeness of the Croatian movie still fresh in my mind, I wanted to stay and give the showings here a chance.

While waiting, they brought out (surprise!) some real Indian food they brought. I had a tasty and perfect samosa, though perfect may be my exaggerated happiness at finally getting something good, a large potato pancake thing, and a decent though overly minted garbanzo bean stew.

Digression: One surprising feature of the festival was the crowd. It was half-white, mostly typical Californian yoga fanatics and people obsessed with Indian mysticism.

Anyway, let's get to the movies. They were showing two shorts by Satyajit Ray, a prolific Indian director. They were nicely introduced by a UCSC professor who has dedicated much time to tracking down the prints and restoring them. He told us some interesting stories, including one sad one about a fire in England that destroyed some reels of film. The company holding them was reluctant to reveal the fact that they burned.
* The Inner Eye. A documentary about Binode Bihari Mukherjee, a famous painter who goes blind after a failed cataract operation. Could've been much better. For instance, after he lost his sight, the film pans silently over works he later produced. We don't see his struggles with his lack of vision. We don't know how art critics reacted to his post-transformation work.
* Two. A poignant silent (music and sound effects but no speaking) film about a rich kid with many toys and a poor (and darker-skinned) child that lives nearby in poverty with few toys. Excellent. A tale about envy, schadenfreude, one-up-man-ship, and simplicity.

Besides Two, the festival had only one other redeeming feature: a person I met named Charles. We had a neat conversation in which he mentioned two performance groups I hadn't heard of: a high-quality Balinese orchestra based in El Cerrito (they have music videos online; apparently their performances involve more than just music -- I don't really understand it), and a troupe of shadow puppeteers based in SF (also with videos and pictures online). I should one day go to a performance by one of these groups.

SF Croatian Festival 2006

On Saturday, October 21st 2006, I spent the evening at the SF Croatian Festival. Due to a lack of publicity, I knew it would be smaller than all the other festivals. I didn't realize how small.

My first thought upon entering was, "is this all?" The room was no larger than two basketball courts and was filled with perhaps two dozen people. The food counter appeared to have only two trays on it. When I found out the entrance fee was $15/person, I nearly walked out. (Most other festivals are $5/person; a few are free.) But since I had no other evening plans, I decided to stay and see how things turned out. If only for the movie they showed, the decision to pay the fee and stay was correct.

The first event was a panel on "Croatian music yesterday, today, and tomorrow." Two families, both of whom were members of traditional Croatian musical groups, made up the panel. They were clearly fighting hard to keep alive their dying cultural traditions. I felt bad for them, especially because it seemed like the battle has already been lost. I counted less than three dozen people at the festival, the vast majority of whom were over fifty years old. At least one minor benefit of the small audience was that the panel was relaxed to joke with each other. Also, the members of the audience that were related to the panelists felt comfortable enough to heckle them.

Digression: One panelist said she grew up knowing "a cross section of all ethnic cultures: Bulgarian, Macedonian, Polish, Hungarian, ..."! (emphasis added)

During breaks in activities, I read the book I brought and flipped through the tiny festival pamphlet. The schedule made me snicker when I read the room I was in was the "main hall" and there was another place called the "small hall." I investigated. It was indeed a smaller room with a bar, a few tables, and some pictures and plaques on the walls commemorating the founding and history of the Croatian American Cultural Center. During the time I was there, it was mostly used as a warm-up room for musicians.

In early evening, some musicians played traditional Croatian folk music. A main instrument involved is the tamburitza, a stringed instrument similar to a lute. The music, played by groups of about six, sounded like ordinary folk music with a slight Spanish influence. People quickly filled up the dance floor -or as filled as it could get with forty people in attendance and less than half willing to dance- with waltzes and with line dances that reminded me of the ones I saw at Greek festivals.

While listening to the music and watching the dancing, I grabbed food: a sirnica. Much like Greek pastries, the sirnica was a fluffy pastry filled with cheese. Basically a burek but vegetarian. It was decent though would've been better warm. I definitely liked the pastry dough. Unlike most other festivals, they had the food brought in. They said they had the bureks and sirnicas made by Euro Market (980 El Camino Real #100, Santa Clara, CA), a store I can't find much mention of on the web.

I also tried the dessert: a dry walnut cake that resembled a cinnamon swirl. It wasn't worth finishing.

Finally, the star of the evening (to me) arrived: A Wonderful Night in Split. As I wrote in my notes, it's a "brilliant black and white Croatian film covering three overlapping tales of drugs and death. Great recurring musical theme and good music as part of the story as well. Sounds depressing but it's not. By overlapping, I mean stories that take place in the old quarter of Split on the same evening with some of the same characters. By brilliant, I mean the tales are tied together in subtle ways, like the usage of the camera and connections via scenes that originally seem trivial or meaningless."

I headed home after the film ended.

Stanford Five Year Reunion: Saturday: Insanely Many Events

On Saturday, October 14th 2006, I once again headed down to Stanford early in the morning. After stopping by the alumni center to grab breakfast (a dense flavorless muffin, a fine piece of coffeecake, some nasty orange juice from concentrate, and some fresh fruit), I headed over to Maples Pavilion for the morning's panel.

I don't recall ever previously being in Maples Pavilion, the basketball stadium. Upon entering, it seemed vaguely familiar but that could just be from the handful of games I saw on television; I don't know why I'd have been there before. As I waited for the panel to begin, Donald, an old dorm-mate and roommate for a summer, found me, an amazingly feat given the size of the stadium. It's nice to have finally run into a good friend at the reunion.

Anxious Times Panel:
The Anxious Times Panel included an absurd number of big names, including journalist Koppel, president Hennessy, justice Kennedy, and former secretary of defense Perry. It was a fairly neat wide ranging discussion on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, bird flu, and other items commonly used to terrify the populace. I was surprised with the honesty and directness of the participants, especially Koppel (humor, curse words, and all) and Kennedy. At times it felt a little disconnected due to the number of people with opinions and number of topics covered, but the panel did get into depth in some areas. The Stanford Daily has a good article on the event; a complete video is available via iTunes from the first link in this paragraph.

Class Panel:
Next came the 2001 class panel, a panel of graduates from my year discussing life after graduation and how they got where they are now. (Actually, it wasn't strictly next; the two panels overlapped a bit so I arrived late.) Although the people on the panel were interesting, I found them slightly disappointing if only because there was no one I knew and there were no scientists or engineers. Still, it was cool to listen to random snippets of life, prompted by questions such as "what's your average tuesday like?"

The moderator asked some provoking questions worth thinking about individually. Where do you think you'll be in life at your fifty year reunion? (Actually, I think the ten year reunion question would be much more interesting.) What do you regret the most about your time at Stanford? (After watching the panel of strangers and attending other reunion events, I'd answer not meeting enough people.)

I made a neat observation while flipping through the schedule of events during the panel. Here are the names of all the class panels happening this weekend, in reverse chronological order. (While some names aren't very good, I think you get my point.)

2001Finding Our Way in the (New) Real World
1996The Not-So-Simple Life: Existence Beyond the Farm
1991Shifting Priorities and Finding a Balance
1986Making Sense of It All
1981Choice and Chance: Reelin' In The Years
1976From the bicentennial to bird flu, 30 years of building a stairway to...heaven
1971Dazed and Confused: What Comes Next?
1966Boomers on the Move
1961Our Second Commencement: What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives?
1956Back to the Future ... and Beyond!

Class Lunch:
The class lunch was similar to the previous day's. Although it was much more crowded, it was still filled with many people I didn't know. I hung out with Donald and he was better at spotting Robleites than I. Oddly, Donald generally spotted many more people that lived in Larkin during our freshman year.

As for lunch, it felt like dorm food: comfortable though not particularly good. Chicken and beef sloppy joes, burgers, caesar salad, watermelon, cookies. The wet napkins for wiping one's hand were named "Awesome Wipes." :) Apparently they're made by Armadillo Willies.

Alumni Film Festival:
The alumni film festival showed a series of shorts produced (surprise!) by alumni. Probably due to the limited pool from which to select, the program was pretty weak: certainly worse than every other real film festival I've attended. That said, two movies were good:
* Kind of a Blur: A quirky, cute comedic short about two ravers who wake
up in a cow pasture and try to determine what happened the previous night.
* Oedipus: A well-done short that tells the story of Oedipus via stop-motion animation of vegetables. Stars a potato, a tomato, and a piece of broccoli. Showed at Sundance. And you can watch it online! (The web page is pretty good, including such goodies as: "True to the spirit of 1950s cinema, we racially profiled our extras. Green olives play soldiers, black olives play slaves, and the citizens are Greek olives." "Few things elicit 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from an audience like a fifteen foot potato." "This movie contains scenes of vegetable sensuality.")

After the festival, a panel of two alumni involved with these films and a moderator who works in the film world answered questions. It was more interesting than I expected. Kudos go to the moderator for managing such a small no-name panel well and for asking and answering thoughtful questions. I learned:
* Shorts are always a labor of love. They never make money.
* Shorts usually take only a few days of shooting.
* One major reason people participate in making a short is to get a chance to work with new people, to network, and to get a chance to show off skills not expressed in past films on which one's worked.
* Oedipus takes around a terabyte of disk space.
* Oedipus could not have been made without an insider at Industrial Light & Magic getting approval via its internal creative project process.
* Oedipus had to break the southern California supermarket strike: they needed to replace "actors" as they wilted.

One Bad Apple:
By far the best event of day was the reunion performance of One Bad Apple, a musical written fifteen years ago by some students. It's about religion, belief, ethics, trickery, and relationships (both love and power). It's very witty and has catchy songs.

Even though it was only a staged reading -not much in terms of costumes or set-, the musical and the performance was great. We rightly gave them a standing ovation. It was better than what I thought could be written by students (yes, even Stanford students).

Some of the performers were the original ones that performed this at Stanford fifteen years ago. Some switched roles. They filled in a few missing parts and backup parts with friends and current Stanford choral students. Special commendations go to: the actor playing the Snake, for his ability to squirm and for putting on a tremendous physical performance; the actress playing Gabriel, for her evocation of sheer earnestness; the actress playing God, for her stage presence and singing voice.

A Cappella Concert:
After a short hike across campus, I snuck into the A Cappella concert just before intermission. Only about half of Stanford's groups were represented (including a new south Asian one that didn't exist when I went to school) so each group only got to perform two songs. As expected, it was a mixed bag. The highlights for me were the Mendicants's performance of "You Dumped Me First" and Fleet Street's performance of "Pray to the God of Partial Credit."

Many current students attended the concert to cheer on their favorite groups. It was refreshing to finally see substantially more young faces around.

Class Party:
After the concert, I wandered around in circles for a while. Literally. As I didn't want to get the party for members of my graduation class too early, I walked a very circuitous route after the concert ended to get to the party. Still, I was one of the first dozen people there.

Since it wasn't crowded and I had skipped dinner, it's not surprising the first feature I noticed was the food, which therefore ought to deserve first mention here. It was definitely odd for party food. For one, they had hot dogs with every condiment one might want. That worked well for me for dinner. Also, in addition to the standard assortment of vegetables and dip, crackers and cheese, and alcoholic drinks, they had a coffee stand that could make lattes, cappuccinos, and the like. I don't think I've ever seen one of those at a party either...

Anyway, when I'd entered I'd noticed one of the few people that arrived before me was a senior dorm-mate. I caught up a bit with her as more people showed up, then hung out with Donald when he arrived. He re-introduced me to many people that lived in my freshmen dorm that I'd forgotten about or never met (because the dorm was a big place).

The net result? Since most of the people I knew from school weren't the kind of people to go to a party like this, so I ended up feeling a little lost. After giving it a good hour and a half, I cut out, deciding it was better to leave feeling good than continue looking around the party, hunting for people I know, not finding any, and being sad wondering whether I should've met more people in school.

There was practically nothing scheduled for Sunday, so the party was the last of my reunion activities.